The collect and readings for today, Proper 15C, the Twelfth Sunday After Pentecost, may be found here. The appointed gospel is Luke 12:49-56.
Jesus said “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”
He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, ‘It is going to rain’; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?
Many years ago a friend of mine, Sarah, told me that her eight year old son came to her one day and asked, “Do you love God more than me?” My friend was very active in her parish. She was growing spiritually and deeply committed to God. Her son looked at her waiting for an answer. “Yes, Ben, I do,” she finally answered.
As I recall that story I hear Jesus’ words from today’s gospel. “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”
With Ben’s question and Sarah’s answer there is now division between mother and son. I suspect Ben experienced this division as one of diminishment maybe even rejection. Sarah, however, understood it quite differently. She knew that the fullness of her life and who she was, including her motherhood, had to find its primary identity and meaning in God and not in Ben. Only then would she be able to fully love Ben and be the mother he needed and she wanted to be.
Our distinct identity as persons is given by our various relationships; biological, natural, social and political. These include our relationships with family and friends, the natural environment, our work, our country, our beliefs, the things we possess. Some of these relationships are tangible and associated with people, places, objects. Some are not so tangible but no less real; our spiritual relationships, beliefs, attitudes. Think of all the many relationships each of us has. Regardless of whether we judge them as good or bad, healthy or unhealthy, taken together this vast complex of relationships makes you and me the persons we are.
Ultimately, however, only one of these many relationships can finally be the most significant and decisive for us. This one relationship makes us uniquely who we are and not someone else. For example, if I decide that my relationship with my parents is the definitive one, then all my other relationships will be seen and lived out through this one relationship with my parents. I will try to live their lives through mine. Their lives will become the lens through which I see and relate to others, the world, and myself. That one relationship will be decisive for who I am. It will become the criterion for determining and incorporating all other relationships that contribute to who I am as a person. The one relationship that ultimately determines our identity is the one to whom we will give our existence and life.
Jesus’ relationship with the Father is what ultimately determines his identity and being. He freely chose that one relationship above all others. That does not mean he rejects all others. Rather all his other relationships are mediated through his relationship with the Father. Jesus’ choice brought about division with the religious leaders, the world, and all who would chose differently.
That is the choice Jesus sets before us today. Who or what is the determining relationship that gives you your identity and being? What relationship matters so much to you that you allow it to shape your life and give you identity? Maybe it is your kids, your spouse, your work. Maybe it is your parents, your church, God, or even country. It is a choice we make over and over, day after day as we respond to and enter relationships. It is a choice that always brings division. “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!”
This is not the Jesus we are used to and probably not the Jesus we want. Where is the water-walking, miracle-working, dying-for-me Jesus? What happened to sweet baby Jesus asleep on the hay no crying he made? This fire bringing, family dividing Jesus makes us uncomfortable.
God knows we already have more than enough division on the earth. We do not need any more. We are divided socially, racially, economically, politically, religiously not only in our own country but throughout the world. There is division in marriages and families, in the workplace, in our schools. This is not, however, the division that Jesus brings. The division that we read about in the paper and watch on the news is not Jesus’ doing. We humans have caused those divisions by our choices of relationships that ultimately determine who we are and how we act. We have made bad choices. Getting our life turned around means learning “how to interpret the present time” and choose again.
It means choosing the Father as the one primary relationship that finally determines who we are and what we do. If we choose the Father as that one relationship then it means our parents, children, spouses, or friends do not determine who we are. It means that our jobs, our country, our politics, our possessions do not create our identity. God does. Those relationships do not necessary have to end. Rather, they exist within the context our relationship with the Father. There will be new dynamics, new priorities, and new divisions. To choose the Father will bring about division. Jesus said it would. It is not, however, a division that kills, oppresses, or separates.
The division Jesus offers is about growth. He is growing us up into the fullness of life and holiness. Regardless of our age we are always in the process of growing up. Growing up is difficult and often painful work. Division is the way of life and growth.
Look at the miracle of physical life and your body. Watch a child grow up. This, modern science has revealed, is a result of division at the cellular level. Growth and our physical bodies are a result of division. Go into a home where a teenager lives. On the surface you may see conflict between parent and child. At a deeper level it is about division. A young person is discovering his or her life and identity apart from the parent. It may not be fun but it is absolutely necessary for life, the child’s and the parent’s.
Just as division offers physical and emotional growth so it offers spiritual growth. Jesus is calling us to grow up and bringing the division that makes that growth possible. For our part we must reexamine our relationships and the priorities we have given them. We must choose our relationship with the Father, to the exclusion of all other people, places, or objects as the one relationship that finally gives us our truest and most authentic identity. This is the division that loses nothing and gains everything. This division does not diminish or reject others. Instead it offers wholeness and perfection. It is the division that transforms our lives, makes sacred all our other relationships, and heals the world.